Midwestern cities continue to lose population. Two of the fastest-shrinking are in Illinois
Two Illinois cities, Rockford and Decatur, are among the fastest-shrinking cities in the country, according to U.S. Census Bureau population estimates, part of an ongoing trend of Midwestern cities losing residents while cities across the Southwest and West continue to grow.
Decatur, in central Illinois about 40 miles east of Springfield, has lost 7.1% of its population since the 2010 census, according to the recently released 2019 population estimates. That drop is the third-largest percentage loss in the U.S. among cities with a population of 50,000 or more. Rockford comes in at No. 15 on that list. The northern Illinois city, the fifth-largest in the state with an estimated 145,609 residents, has lost 5% of its population during that nine-year period.
Rockford’s total population loss of 7,676 people over the last decade places it ninth nationwide among large cities, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, with Decatur (-5,385) at No. 15. Four of the five cities that have lost the most people since the last census are in the Midwest. Detroit has lost the most people, about 43,000, since 2010, followed by Baltimore, St. Louis, Cleveland and Toledo, Ohio.
Chicago, meanwhile, remains the third-largest city in the country, behind Los Angeles and in front of Houston. The gap between Chicago (2.7 million) and Houston (2.3 million) continues to shrink, though the difference remains sizable.
Chicago’s population is essentially flat from the 2010 census, with an estimated 2,693,976 people living in the city in 2019, 1,676 fewer than nine years before. Meanwhile, Houston has been steadily gaining population, gaining about 225,000 new residents over the last decade.
Houston has experienced the second-largest numeric increase in population, behind only Phoenix, of all U.S. cities with a population of 50,000 or greater since 2010, according to the Census Bureau. New York remains the nation’s most populous city by a wide margin, with 8.3 million residents. Los Angeles, at No. 2, has nearly 4 million people.
David Wilson, professor of geography and urban planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said Illinois cities like Rockford and Decatur are suffering from structural, systematic forces in the new postindustrial economy. Midsize Midwestern cities in particular, especially those in the so-called Rust Belt that relied on manufacturing, have been hurt in recent years by a lack of federal aid for municipalities and a closure or movement of industrial companies, which leads to higher local taxes and a lack of jobs that can provide for a middle class life.
“I think those cities are very susceptible to having populations hurt by the new service economy or the new postindustrial economy, and that’s because they have such a historical reliance, and a current reliance, on manufacturing and heavy-duty industry,” Wilson said. “And for those city economies that have not diversified, they really get hurt, they get pummeled. And what does that mean to get pummeled? People have a very difficult time living there and earning a living wage. They simply can’t make ends meet. And they become primed for thinking about leaving and trying to find something better.”
This phenomenon, Wilson said, disproportionately hurts the black middle class and is unequally distributed among socioeconomic classes, affecting those who earn less money or who relied on the manufacturing jobs that no longer exist.
The coronavirus will exacerbate all of these factors, especially when it comes to curtailing of public services, but also the perception that cities like Rockford and Decatur are unsafe, Wilson said.
“It’s going to create a further divide between the haves and the have-nots in places like Joliet, Aurora, Rockford,” Wilson said. “And people are going to want to leave.”
In Rockford, the area north of downtown was once humming with industrial manufacturing facilities that attracted thousands of workers. Now the facilities are mostly abandoned. Front entrances that once welcomed employees are shuttered, blocked by weeds and unruly bushes. Huge parking lots are silent and empty. Gates are padlocked.
Factories also once made work plentiful in downstate Decatur. A 2013 Tribune story about the global agribusiness company Archer Daniels Midland moving its headquarters from town noted that locals once joked that a worker could get fired from one plant and land a new job the next day. In 1980, Decatur’s population was at a high of 94,000. Now it is 71,000.
Danville, in eastern Illinois near the Indiana border, is among the fastest-decreasing metro areas, when the census takes into account population beyond city limits. Danville has lost 7.2% of its population since 2010, behind only Pine Bluff, Arkansas, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Charleston, West Virginia, and Beckley, West Virginia.
Population change and loss, Wilson said, is often more about the combination of these complex factors and economic and governmental conditions in particular cities, more than people’s desire for change. Individual decisions are made within that reality.
“More and more middle-class families have a difficult time finding their economic footing in places like Aurora and Joliet and Rockford,” Wilson said. “If you look at where job growth is, either you try to find a way into the new high-tech economy or you find yourself essentially bailing out into the dead-end, low-wage economy. People say, well, maybe that’s not suitable, maybe there’s something better down the road and we should move to the Sun Belt, maybe we should move to the East Coast, and try our hand there.”
It is a myth, Wilson said, that high earners, even in places like Rockford and Decatur, are fleeing the state. In fact, he said, the biggest population losses appear to be coming from those who earn less. And when they decide to leave, they turn to places with better job prospects, lower taxes and, secondarily, better weather, Wilson said.
These factors bubble to the top of the most recent census data release, which shows cities in Texas booming. Five of the country’s most populous cities are in Texas, with San Antonio (7), Dallas (9), Austin (11) and Fort Worth (13) joining Houston.
And that growth trend is continuing. Six of the country’s fastest-growing large cities since 2010 are in Texas, according to the census, and every one of the Top 15 are in the South or West regions. Expanding beyond city limits, three of the Top 10 metro areas with the largest gains in population nationally are in Texas: Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and Austin.
Fort Worth and Charlotte, North Carolina, moved into the Top 15 most populous U.S. cities list, bumping Indianapolis and San Francisco. And Phoenix is now the fifth-largest city in the country, overtaking Philadelphia.
The Census Bureau releases population estimates each year between censuses. The 2020 census is continuing, with deadlines extended because of the coronavirus pandemic. More precise population information from the census, including state population totals that will determine apportionment of seats in the U.S. House, will begin to be released in spring 2021.